See Escape Artist Harry Houdini’s Long-Lost Silent Film

The film was last shown publicly in 1974.

Magician Harry Kellar, Harry Houdini, and director Irvin Willat on the set of The Grim Game (1919). Photo: Paramount/Arthur Moses Collection, via Wikimedia.
Magician Harry Kellar, Harry Houdini, and director Irvin Willat on the set of The Grim Game (1919). Photo: Paramount/Arthur Moses Collection, via Wikimedia.

A classic silent film starring illusionist and stunt performer Harry Houdini that was thought to be lost has been restored by Turner Classic Movies (TCM).

Considered to be among the best of the escape artist’s five films, The Grim Game will make its world premiere in Hollywood at next month’s 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival, nearly a century after the 71-minute film, directed by Irvin Willat, was first released in 1919. In the movie, Harvey Hanford, played by Houdini, escapes from the police after being arrested for murder, and tracks down the men who have framed him.

For four decades, the film, which was last publicly shown in 1974, languished in obscurity. As far as anyone knew, only five minutes of footage survived, a dramatic scene in which two airplanes crash thanks to a stunt gone wrong.

Brooklyn’s Larry Weeks, a juggler who died this past September at 95, knew better: a huge Houdini fan, he had purchased the only surviving complete copy of the movie in 1947. Weeks had in the past refused to sell the five-and-a-half reels and two negatives, but agreed to do so after meeting with silent film scholar and film preservationist Rick Schmidlin shortly before his death.

The Film’s Restoration

TCM restored the 35 millimeter nitrate print thanks to support from the Barbara Goldsmith Preservation and Conservation Department at New York University Libraries. NYU professor Brane Živković composed a new score to accompany the film, which he will perform at the Hollywood premiere. “I wanted to recreate the ambiance of a silent film theater of the early ‘20s, where local musicians played the score to enhance scenes, especially those involving action, emotion and heroic deeds,” he told the Washington Square News.

“The discovery, restoration and screening of The Grim Game is the perfect embodiment of the TCM mission to celebrate our cinematic heritage and share it with new audiences,” said the company’s senior vice president of programming, Charles Tabesh, in a statement. Thankfully, this important piece of cinematic history, once thought to be lost, has been preserved for future generations, ensuring that Houdini’s legacy will continue to endure.

Harry Houdini’s The Grim Game premieres at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival, in Hollywood, California, March 26–29.


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